Friday, September 30, 2011

Brad Pitt connects in 'Moneyball'

Moneyball gives Brad Pitt a chance to follow Tree of Life with another strong performance.
By now, you've probably read that Moneyball, the new movie starring Brad Pitt, is well worth seeing. Thankfully, the critical consensus -- a 94 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- pretty much has it right. I learned this when I caught up with Moneyball after returning from 17 days out of the country (see previous post), and finding myself engaged by a baseball movie that smartly turns its cameras away from the field. Moneyball may not strike a direct hit, but it deserves credit for taking aim at romanticized views of the national pastime.

Pitt gives a winning performance as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' general manager who -- with help from a numbers cruncher played by Jonah Hill -- used statistical analysis in an attempt to match small-market achievement and big-market results.

There's daring here, too. Pitt, who at 47 still has lots of boyish charm, has no love interest in the movie, although Beane is shown to have a tender relationship with his daughter from a failed marriage. Beane's a loner who wants to win, to prove that baseball's imperial forces (notably the Yankees and Red Sox) can be defeated by guys with brain power and the courage to follow a system. Even Oakland's scouts -- grizzled veterans of many baseball wars -- think Beane has strayed too far outside the lines.

Moneyball marks Pitt's second strong performance of the year, following on the heels of an impressive turn as a tough-minded father in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. This time, Bennett Miller (Capote) directs Pitt in a performance that highlights Beane's competitive desire, his pragmatism and his willingness to kick aside conventional thinking.

Beane's also haunted by his own past as a player whose potential seriously was misjudged by the scouts who recruited him for the Majors. Even by his own standards, Beane's stat-heavy approach doesn't quite work, but Beane's inability to win the big prize -- a World Series -- gives the movie added poignancy.

The sideline action -- views of the A's less-than-commodious clubhouse, for example -- adds color, although the script by Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin (from the best-selling book by Michael Lewis) tends to overstay its welcome, and Miller does not pitch the perfect big-screen game.

Tensions between Beane and A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a smallish role) could have received more attention, and Hill's character -- based on former Beane assistant Paul DePodesta -- makes for a pleasing, if obvious, odd-fellow pairing with Pitt. Hill's Brand is the kind of nerd who's not supposed to get a second look from guys with jock mentalities.

Still, in drawing the contrast between the romance of baseball and the hard-minded approach of the statistician, Moneyball proves an enjoyable and mostly unconventional look at the world of big-time sport.

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball lends itself to consideration of thought-provoking analysis: What if there are no intangibles when it comes to judging talent? What if only numbers matter? What if the work of two decent players can contribute as much to winning as one great player?

Moneyball won't topple the mythic, romanticized view of baseball that has dominated so much of American storytelling, but it asks us to confront our own romanticism about the sport, which (for those of us in the aging part of the population) is tantamount to confronting any residual romanticism about our long-faded youth.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Of 'Carnage,' Tuscany and -- more importantly -- wine and fine food

For reasons having to do with things beyond my control, I'm in Italy at a time when some of the year's biggest - and purportedly best -- movies are opening. I'll have to catch up with the likes of Drive and Moneyball when I return, but for now I must content myself with eating indulgently, basking in the magnificent Tuscan scenery, and enriching myself with some of the most important art in western culture. Did I mention great food?

Of course, I did because if art is essential, food is more so.

In fact, eating is one of my favorite things, and Italy is one the rare places where you don't have to apologize for loading up on whatever regional specialty happens to cross your plate.

When in Florence, you eat (or should) like a Florentine. Should you find yourself in the tiny town of Bolgheri you, of course, would sample the baccala e patate (cod and potatoes mixed into a tasty paste) along with generous amounts of local wine, local in this case referring to one of the world's most important wine producing regions, home to vintners such as Antinori and Ruffino.

So how did all this come about?

As luck would have it (good for a change), I've taken up temporary residence in a refurbished farmhouse on the largest remaining intact estate in this crazy quilt of a country. I'm in the hills above Lucca, a small, clean and slightly standoffish city surrounded by an impossibly thick wall brought to completion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among other achievements, Lucca is the hometown of Giacomo Puccini, who, as you no doubt know, wrote a few operas.

"Huh?" you may be saying to yourself at this point. Isn't this guy supposed to be writing about movies?

All right then, a little movie talk.

Before I arrived at this mountain retreat, I managed to see Roman Polanski's Carnage, which happened to be playing at the Odeon Cinema in Florence. The Odeon? Just ask someone to direct you to Palazzo Strozzi, and you'll be right there or, more reasonably, you could wait until Carnage shows up at a theater near you.

Well-received at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival, Carnage is the big-screen version of Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage. Originally written in French, the play caused quite a stir when its English-languge version opened on Broadway with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels.

Reza and Polanski collaborated on the movie's screenplay, which - like its theatrical predecessors -- takes aim at bourgeois pretensions, particularly those of the generation that has turned parenting into a profession.

Despite such contemporary relevance, Carnage does not feel entirely fresh. The movie can't help but evoke memories of Edward Albee's master class in sarcasm, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another look at two couples who find themselves at odds.

The story begins with two arguing kids. After a bit of playground pushing and shoving, one of the boys whacks the other in the head with a stick, knocking out two teeth and damaging a few nerves.

Parents of both boys agree to meet - sans children. The parents of the offending boy (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visit the Brooklyn apartment of the parents of the "victim" (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). Reilly and Foster hope to resolve the matter amicably. Winslet and Waltz - sounds like a prestigious accounting firm, no? - aren't eager to admit their son's guilt. As the story unfolds, each of the characters becomes more revealed.

Waltz's Alan Cowan is a corporate attorney whose cell phone seems permanently attached to his ear; Winslet's Nancy Cowan does a slow burn because of her husband's refusal to focus on the matter at hand. Reilly's Michael Longstreet, a successful businessman, comes off as a nice guy - at least initially, and Foster's Penelope Longstreet seems to think of herself as a defender of important but threatened values. She's writing a book.

Cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who shot The Pianist and The Ghostwriter for Polanski, does what he can to keep the movie from feeling like what it is -- a play on film. The performances vary in quality with Reilly and Winslet acquitting themselves best. I'll save further comment for the movie's U.S. opening.

Instead, a few thoughts about seeing the movie in Italy.

As long as I've been writing about film, I've been encouraging people to embrace movies with subtitles, lest they miss some of the best work available on film these days. But I had a strange experience with subtitles while watching Carnage, which was shown in the original English with Italian subtitles.

Thank God, no Italian dubbing for this one - at least not yet.

Still, when I missed a word or line of dialogue, my eyes traveled toward the Italian subtitles in hopes of finding clarification. That might have made sense if I knew more than a smattering of Italian. Sure, I can order water (sparkling or natural) without missing a beat, but most of my Italian would embarrass all but the dimmest of Italian schoolchildren.

Not surprisingly, the subtitles did little to fill in the blanks. Still, my eyes were drawn to them. This made for a strange and disorienting experience: In the early going, I felt as if I not only couldn't understand Italian, but had lost the ability to comprehend spoken English. I'm not sure what besides lingering jet lag could have created such a bizarre situation. But there it was: I kept getting lost.

Eventually, I settled in, preparing myself for a much-discussed scene involving projectile vomiting, which (I'm happy to report) amused me while in no way deterring my pursuit of more fabulous meals.

I began by saying that I am in Italy as a result of circumstances beyond my control, by which I meant I'm accompanying my wife, who is teaching a painting workshop here.

Me? I eat. I drink wine. I read. I wander the thickly shaded roads that curl through Italy's largest remaining intact estate. I listen for the rustle of wildlife in the thick woods. I savor the aromas of still-green foliage as it teeters on the edge of a magnificent fall collapse, and I muse about the most pressing of matters. When, for example, will lunch will be served?

Of course, I'll catch up with movies when I return to the states. Meanwhile, Buon appetito, friends. See all the movies you want, but just as importantly eat often and eat well.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This movie doesn't do it at all

It's not Sex in the City, but I Don't Know How She Does It tends to feel just as glib.
On the way out of a preview screening of I Don't Know How She Does It -- a new comedy based on a novel by Allison Pearson - I wondered whether Sex In the City hasn't taken too big a toll on Sarah Jessica Parker.

Parker, a fine comic actress, seems to be stuck in a rut, playing roles that insist on pushing every modern-woman button in sight. This time, though, it's not the search for Mr. Right that motivates Parker's character, but the quest to find the perfect balance between job and family.

Parker's Kate is a Boston-based investment adviser with a husband (Greg Kinnear) and two young children. Kate's life consists of juggling a variety of domestic chores while striving to stay ahead of the game at work.

When she's offered the opportunity to woo an important client (Pierce Brosnan), Kate faces her biggest challenge. Brosnan's Jack Abelhammer is the kind of guy who insists that Kate be ready to travel on a moment's notice. Thanksgiving with the family? It can't be as important as a meeting with a client.

As directed by Douglas McGrath (Emma and Infamous), I Don't Know How She Does It vainly tries to be smart and topical, and you half suspect that McGrath & company are anticipating that hordes of middle-class working moms will identify like crazy as Kate tries to retain control over her chaotic life.

It's anything but easy. Harried and hassled, Kate buys a pie (instead of making it) for the bake sale at her daughter's school. She also endures the scornful slings and arrows of full-time moms who think a woman's place is on the treadmill - not the metaphoric one but the one at the local health club. OK, the movie made the point with some sort of stepping machine, but I couldn't come up with a strained metaphor for that particular instrument of torture ... er ... fitness. Trying to climb the ladder of success?

We move on.

As her professional demands mount, Kate inevitably neglects her husband, almost as much as the script does.

All of this stressed-out comedy comes across with enough annoying sitcom-level cleverness to make your eyes roll. A high point arrives when Kate meets Brosnan's Jack for an all-important interview while simultaneously grappling with a case of lice that she's contracted from her daughter.

Parker can handle this kind of comedy with ease, but the movie's script - by Aline Brosh McKenna - seems like a collection of situations designed to illustrate points taken from some dog-eared manual on contemporary motherhood. Some of the points are made by Kate in the form glib narration and some are delivered by the movie's other actors, who've been asked to talk directly to the camera.

Joining Parker in this misbegotten comedy is Christina Hendricks (of TV's Mad Men). She's the movie's obligatory wisecracking best friend. Olivia Munn signs on as Momo, Kate's crackerjack, Harvard-educated assistant. Momo's extremely proficient, which means she's disdainful of Kate's tendency to become hopelessly scattered - until she, too, yields to the gospel of family.

Kelsey Grammer appears in a small role as Kate's boss, a taskmaster who insists that she spend lots of time traveling.

The best part of the movie involves the flirtatious relationship between Parker and Brosnan, who's convincing as a Wall Street wizard who operates in New York City, forcing Kate to make frequent trips from her Boston home.

Will Kate abandon her husband and kids and opt for the giddy pleasures of a mega career in investing? What do you think? No fair telling, except to say that at no point will you have trouble guessing where I Don't Know How She Does It is headed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When disease spreads like wildfire

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion reminds us that we're more vulnerable than we might think.
How many objects have you touched today?

That's something you probably haven't given much thought, but after seeing Steven Soderbergh's bio-thriller Contagion, you may be tempted to pay a little more attention. Throughout the movie, Soderbergh's scrupulous camera writes mini-essays on how disease is transmitted, perhaps by something as innocuous as handing a cell phone to someone who was about to leave it sitting on the bar at a snazzy restaurant.

No big deal. Things like that happen thousands of times a day. They don't much matter - until they do.

Soderbergh, a director who swings between mainstream entertainment (the Ocean's movies) and more idiosyncratic fare (Che), this time finds a middle ground. He has assembled the kind of all-star cast we used to see in the disaster movies of the '70s: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet. They're all there, but Soderbergh doesn't dwell on any of them.

I suppose Damon's Mitch Emhoff is the closest the movie comes to a main character. Damon plays a husband who loses his wife and stepson to a fast-growing virus that challenges the world's health organizations, sparks panic and threatens to wipe out millions.

Despite a stellar cast, the story - written by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote the screenplay for Soderbergh's The Informant - is less focused on character development than on relationships (some random, some not) that help create the movie's international chain of disaster.

Perhaps in a bow to his indie-oriented work, Soderbergh refuses to grab onto every thriller ploy he can put his hands on. Deliberately paced (sometimes to the point of flatness), Contagion may disappoint those who are looking for pedal-to-the-metal thrills. In truth, I sometimes found myself wishing that Soderbergh would quicken the movie's pulse.

Not that there isn't plenty to look at: Contagion qualifies as an exercise in cinematic globe-hopping as the story leaps from Hong Kong to London to Atlanta to rural China and to Minneapolis, starting with a title card that tells us we're in Day 2 of this bio-fueled tale. That, of course, immediately lets us know that Soderbergh isn't going to tell us what happened on Day 1 until the movie's almost over.

Not all the actors fare equally well. With so many characters, the script shortchanges almost all of them, opting instead to create a feeling of global catastrophe while quickly sketching its way through a variety of issues: informing the public about the disease, searching frantically for a vaccine (an effort spearheaded by a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle), and - less surprisingly - watching the impact of alarmist journalism.

Sporting a snaggletoothed look that works against his pretty-boy past, Law signs on as a blogger who sets himself up as a prophet of doom. Law's Alan Krumwiede also argues that the U.S. government is suppressing knowledge of a cure.

Whatever its flaws, Contagion never comes across as dumb; and it reminds us that we may have our collective eye on the wrong ball. Our current preoccupations -- the ever fractious red/blue divide, the mounting national debt and staggering unemployment - could be reduced to afterthoughts by something as tiny as a germ that settles on the credit card you use in a restaurant and which passes from hand-to-hand-to-hand before returning to you.

Contagion leaves you hoping that some day your credit card won't buy a lot more than you bargained for.

One woman's faith is severely tested

Vera Farmiga makes her directorial debut with a surprising look at people of faith.
Those familiar with Vera Farmiga 's work (Up in the Air and Source Code) already know that she's a fine actress. With Higher Ground, we also learn that Farmiga is a capable director, and that she's willing to tackle subjects that don't often yield to intelligent examination on film -- in this case deeply held religious conviction.

Beginning in the 1970s, Higher Ground examines the life of Corinne -- played by Farmiga as an adult and by her younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, as a teen-ager. Early sequences tend to be a bit muddled, but the story takes hold after an accident in which Corinne's baby almost dies. At that point, Corrine and her husband join a faith-based fundamentalist Christian community in which the members shelter their convictions in an insular environment, perhaps stopping a few steps short of a cult.

But here's the thing: Farmiga -- working from a script based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs -- isn't out to trash religion. The people in this faith-based community are sincere. They try to integrate their beliefs into every facet of their lives. And, yes, there's something challenging about the notion that faith isn't an accessory to be donned with one's Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, but something to be lived.

For her part, Corinne tries hard to keep up -- and for a long while she does. Moreover, the emerging issues between Corinne and her husband can be read as typical of a lot of realationships: Corinne grows; her husband (Joshua Leonard) doesn't. He professes to be happy with the way things are. Increasingly, she's not. Truth be told, she's also bored with the single-mindedness of the conversations that tend to dominate the community.

The cracks in Corinne's faith armor gradually widen. At one point, she stands in front of a mirror, trying to summon the Holy Spirit. Inspired by a friend, she wants to speak in tongues, to talk in what the movie calls "prayer language," which Corinne finds beautiful. If she's visited by the spirit, she'll know she's on the right path. Her beliefs will have been validated by a direct experience of the divinity to whom she prays. She wants to be seized.

Farmiga injects some humor into the proceedings, but doesn't sacrifice the humanity of the her characters. Her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) gives vent to repressed libidinal urges by making drawings of her husband's penis. The relationship between Corinne and Annika has moments of shared intimacy that may have more to do with their bond as women then with any religious beliefs. Corinne also maintains relationships (not always smooth) with her alcoholic father (John Hawkes) and with other family members.

It's hardly a spoiler to tell you that Corinne eventually breaks from her an environment that she may simply have outgrown. She can't do this without a sense of loss: Corinne may even envy the faith that seems to have come more easily to some of her companions, and this leads to a wrenching late-picture scene in which Corinne grapples with something we all eventually must encounter, that moment in which nothing less than total honesty will suffice.


Can a chimpanzee live a Dickensian life? I might not have thought so until I saw Project Nim, director James Marsh's documentary about the human meddling that resulted in a whole lot of suffering for a chimp named Nim Chimpsky, an ironic reference to linguist Noam Chomsky. Nim, who was taught to communicate through sign language, started his bildungsroman of a life with a New York family, but was moved around more often than an unlucky foster child. Along the way, Nim illuminates deep corners of character in the humans he encounters. It's not always a pretty picture. I was troubled to learn that Msrsh (Man On A Wire) recreated some scenes and even used some animatronics. But if Marsh wanted to convince us that Nim -- who was born at an Oklahoma facility -- would have been better off had he spent his life as far from humans as possible, Project Nim is a resounding success. Nim's tortuous journey can break your heart.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A striking (and very crazy) debut film

Bellflower hints at the arrival of a new talent, but the movie's not entirely digestible.
Director Evan Glodell has made a debut movie that’s as riveting as it is ridiculous. In case directing Bellflower weren’t enough, Glodell also appears in the movie, playing Woodrow, a guy who pals around with Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Their idea of fun: Preparing for a Mad Max-like world in which they’re going to need the homemade flamethrower they've been testing. Woodrow’s existential drift is interrupted when he meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a woman who (as women in movies such as this are wont to do) turns his world upside down. Think of Bellflower as Jean-Luc Godard meets Roger Corman, although it's not always easy tell where the movie’s serious intentions leave off and its exploitative elements begin. I agree with those who think that Glodell may be a director to watch, partly because Bellflower reminded me of something the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once told a talented young filmmaker: There’s something in your film, Kael supposedly said, but she wasn't sure what. I felt that way about Bellflower: Its oodles of unhinged energy seem to point to something -- even if we're not entirely sure what.


And while we're on the subject of low-budget indies, consider Littlerock, director Mike Ott's deadpan look at interactions between a young Japanese woman who speaks no English and a California town full of slackers. Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) is traveling toward San Francisco with her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) when they're stranded in a middle-of-nowhere desert town. Brother and sister fall under the sway of Cory (Cory Zacharia), a local who turns out to be a bit of a doofus. Eventually, Rintaro continues the journey, leaving Atsuko to fend for herself, which she does pretty well. The movie's tension involves the somewhat ambivalent ways in which the townsfolk relate to Atsuko. Ott also explores what might happen if people are forced to make judgements about one another without benefit of language. Littlerock finally finds unexpected relevance, but Ott takes a long time getting to it -- and I'm not sure it was worth the wait.